The Shoeshine Killer by Marianne Wheelaghan

 “Tarawa was so far from land…by the time the air got there it was super pure.”

Where did I hear about this book? From the lovely folk at TripFiction

Magnifying glasses at the ready for murder mystery intrigue on the tropical islands of Tarawa and Suva. The book’s main protagonist is a bold, clinically fastidious but endearing detective; Louisa of mixed Scottish and Pacific heritage. Her mixed heritage gives the reader a unique perspective of these Pacific islands – both an outsider’s perspective and, to a lesser extent, an insider’s. The novel opens with Louisa’s bumpy touchdown in Suva, where things continue to deteriorate – lost luggage, a deserted airport and a political coup. The only salvation for the night appears on a dark, lonely road in the form of a lift from well-meaning strangers. Yet this chance encounter plunges Louisa deep into a turbulent, gritty world of gangs, murder and police paranoia. At the centre of it all is the shoeshine trade in Suva.

The tropical islands are the perfect background for a murder mystery; where the sultry idylls of the tropics are a stark contrast to violence, deceit and murder. The mystery unravels as we criss-cross between Suva and Tarawa where detectives, thugs, hoteliers and evangelists collide. These characters challenge the stereotypes of the carefree tropical island; giving the reader an insight into the varied realities of life on these islands. Through the shoeshine boys we learn how limited opportunities lead them to join the trade, one that can be violent and exploitative. We learn about battles with alcoholism and its consequences. We learn about the confounding role of the church in these contexts.

The book also exposes the contradictions of sun-blanched island life. Suva and Tarawa are tourist destinations – cheery places for people to escape to on holiday. Yet so many of its inhabitants are keen to leave, and seek their fortunes elsewhere. This contradiction of escapism is a key theme weaving its way throughout the book, binding all of the characters.

The most impressionable part of the book is the maneaba (meeting house) scene, which reveals the celebration of community in Tarawa. The whole village comes together in construction of the new maneaba: “Building a maneaba is as much about making villagers feel connected to one another and their village as building a village hall.” The opening ceremony of the maneaba is written fluidly and mesmerisingly; the drumming, the dance, the colours, the perfume move the reader right into the centre of the swelteringly packed maneaba in Tarawa.

High suspense, a nimble plot and the intrigue of remote far-flung locations make for an enjoyable, fast-paced read. Although Suva and Tarawa are captured well in this novel, I would have enjoyed an even deeper exploration of these places. What better excuse to read more from the Scottish Lady Detective series then?

This review was also posted on: TripFiction Book Reviews

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